Industry and greens battle over pseudoscience in EU capital

23.09.09 @ 09:27

  1. By Leigh Phillips

BRUSSELS - An industry-bankrolled PR company has attacked what it calls pseudoscience in EU legislation, as a years-long war between the defenders of enlightenment and the partisans of obscurantism comes to Brussels.

  • Chemical firms are behind the new group (Photo: wikipedia)

Grayling, the world's third largest public relations company, on Monday (21 September) launched 'ScienceMatters,' a campaign to promote "science-based policy-making." The group wants to take on bad science and what it describes as scaremongering about technology.

According to the ScienceMatters website, the group aims to ensure that "EU policy-making ... be based on sound scientific evidence. Its members believe that the growing trend of ignoring or mis-communicating on science does little to promote the interests of the consumer, the environment, and science itself."

Jessica Adkins, the campaign director and a lobbyist with Grayling, told EUobserver: "On a range of issues, from genetically modified organisms to nanotechnology to chemicals to pesticides to cosmetics, the issue is that science isn't really being taken into account by decision makers."

Her colleague, Guillaume Artois, a spokesperson for the campaign and a communications manager with Albermerle, a US chemical firm and one of the major backers of ScienceMatters, said that environmental risk assessment has become politicised in Brussels.

"We are puzzled by the way science is being treated by the European institutions," he said. "In the chemical field, for example, there are established procedures based on a risk assessment, but when it comes to allowing a product on the market that has passed this assessment, it is somehow disregarded to profit some political concern."

"Once a risk assessment is done, that should be upheld, whatever the conclusions are."

'Astroturf'

Lobby transparency campaigners and environmental groups however are worried that far from encouraging science-led legislation, the new group is in reality what they call ‘astroturf' - a fake grassroots campaign that on the surface looks like a group of concerned citizens but actually is only out to promote the interests of the companies that have hired the PR firm.

At first glance, the group appears to be the Brussels extension of recent efforts by scientists to tackle the avalanche of information in the public discourse that is based on spurious or outright false claims.

In recent years, a number of researchers, particularly young ones, frustrated that astrology is viewed by some as a science, homeopathy as medicine, that the teaching of evolution is being squeezed out of biology curricula in some jurisdictions and that climate-change deniers are taken seriously by conservative politicians, have abandoned the shackles of political neutrality within the public debate and become openly partisan when it comes to their subject areas.

From evolutionary biologist, militant atheist and alternative medicine sceptic Richard Dawkins to physician and the Guardian newspaper's ‘Bad Science' columnist, Ben Goldacre, the boffins are fighting back.

Newspapers, internet bulletin boards and the blogosphere have been crammed with exposures of homeopathy as quackery, discussions of the fall-out in the UK from unwarranted scares over infant vaccinations, and laments about the general poverty of science reporting. A stream of best-selling books such as How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World by Francis Wheen and a host polemical documentaries have firmly established the "defence of reason" as a dominant meme in the second half of the decade.

But civil society groups in Brussels worry that ScienceMatters has piggybacked onto this discourse and taken what they say is otherwise a worthy endeavour - improving the scientific literacy of the public and policy-makers - but warped it to serve the interests of industries that want to limit the costs of legislation that aims to reduce pollution and harm to human health.

Chemical firm backers

The campaign is funded by major chemicals companies Albemarle, Chemtura, and ICL-IP. It is also supported - but receives no money - from the British Plastics Federation, the European Crop Protection Association - the pesticide lobby, and EuropaBio - the biotech trade association headed by Andrea Rappagliosi who is simultaneously the head of the Brussels office of pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, all of whom have participated in roundtable discussions with what the campaign describes as EU stakeholders.

Foundation Nanonet, a Poland-based organisation that aims to "popularise" nanotechnology, is also a member of the new group.

At the same time, the group is very up front about its backers, noting on its website that Albemarle, Chemtura, ICL-IP and Foundation Nanonet are members.

The group is also open about the fact that ScienceMatters' previous incarnation was ‘ReachForLife', which began its existence a year ago as an organisation focussed on EU chemicals policy and its Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (Reach) legislation in particular.

At the time of its launch, Axel Singhofen, an advisor on health and environment policy to the Greens in the European Parliament, accused ReachForLife of wanting to overturn a ban on decabromodiphenyl ether (deca-BDE), a flame retardant, and to prevent any such bans from occurring in the future.

Mr Singhofen told this website that ReachForLife was originally created as "a last-ditch attempt to reverse the ban on their flagship products."

"It's a joke that these cowboys are coming to the defence of science. Their adverts in Brussels media last year were full of misinformation, saying that EU assessments had found deca-BDE to present ‘no risk', that they were ‘proven to be safe', and had a 'clean track record'"

But he pointed out that the European Commission's Scientific Committee on Toxicity, Ecotoxicity and Environment (CSTEE) and its Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks both had recommended risk reduction for the product, and that risk assessment raised concerns about persistence of the chemical and bio-accumulation - which occurs when an organism absorbs a toxic substance at a rate greater than that at which the substance is lost.

"They say they're battling anti-science, but when you look at what they say is in the science, you see that they are completely misrepresenting it," he added. "It's the worst spin that exists."

Indeed, at the time, even the European Chemical Industry Council, the sector's trade association, publicly distanced itself from the ReachForLife campaign.

Erik Wesselius, of the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation (ALTER-EU), which argues for more openness in influence exerted by corporate lobbyists on the political agenda in Europe, told this website: "It's a devious way for the industry to lobby the EU institutions, but this sort of astroturfing has a long tradition. Industry PR has been using this tactic for about ten years now. What they do is try to cast doubt on opponents by discrediting the science their opponents use."

"They say they have the real science while their opponents base theirs on pseudoscience and scaremongering," he continued. "But of course it's they who define what the real science is."

He said that ReachForLife/ScienceMatters have set up a series of roundtables for stakeholders, but that these are always with industry representatives and sometimes an MEP and a journalist, "but certainly not with all stakeholders, say, from civil society or genuine grassroots groups. They're not invited."

Mr Wesselius also noted that Grayling is one of the companies that have not signed up to the European Commission's registry of lobbyists and that ReachForLife had been longlisted as a candidate for last year's EU Worst Lobby Awards, the annual spoof awards show that Alter-EU organises to raise awareness of lobbying influence in Brussels.

ScienceMatters will spend €100,000 over the next twelve months on the campaign, atop a "similar figure" spent on ReachForLife. However, Ms Adkins denies that the group will do any lobbying, telling this website that the money will only be spent on holding roundtable discussions, the production of a report on the role of science in EU decision-making and media relations.

'Greens have narrow perspective on science'

Frank Swain, the British science writer and creator of the popular SciencePunk blog, said the campaign should be taken at its word.

"I don't think they're being disingenuous - it's right there on the website that these chemical companies back them. It's a bit unfair to call them astroturf."

"At the same, of course people are absolutely right to be concerned that any group might actually be in the service of industry interests," he told EUobserver, adding that there are "endless examples" of enterprise, particularly pharmaceutical companies, unduly influencing or suppressing the publication of scientific research

"But that's why it is vital that our elected representatives be scientifically literate and depend on people that are competent in a knowledge of science."

He added that environmentalists tend to have a pick-and-mix attitude when it comes to science.

"The Green parties and green groups sometimes have very narrow, very shallow perspective on science. In terms of climate change, the environmental movement are very strong, but elsewhere, they can be very lackadaisical, embracing science when it supports their case, and ignoring it when it doesn't."

He said that on the question of nuclear power, medical testing on animals and genetically modified foods, environmentalists disregard what scientists have to say.

"It's natural to have concerns with the business practices of Monsanto, with concerns about the food supply chain, about food security and agribusiness, but it is important not to conflate that with an ideological opposition to GMOs.

"Don't put ‘Frankenfood' banners on a wall. Identify your concerns and support those with good evidence."

Hazard vs. risk

Green MEP Carl Schlyter, who himself worked as a chemical engineer before he went to Strasbourg, took umbrage at the accusation that environmentalists were at any time anti-science.

"It is not surprising that these companies would try something like this," he said. "For them, they only time science is talked about is when they want to stop those who have concerns about protection of the environment or people."

He said that behind the discussion of a defence of science, the campaign was in fact a reformulation of the debate about hazard versus risk that the two sides have been engaged in for years.

Hazard is the potential to cause harm while risk on the other hand is the likelihood of harm. Some products can be highly hazardous, but if used correctly, present low or no risk. Alternately, other products can present very little hazard, but if used incorrectly carry a great deal of risk.

Chemical companies and the producers of many industrial products have historically wanted to restrict regulation to risk alone, while environmentalists say the intrinsic hazard of a substance needs to be taken into account as well.

"Sometimes the immediate short-term danger of a product is very difficult to prove, even though over the longer term, it can cause imbalances in an ecosystem that could lead to a reduction in the productive capacity of the ecosystem."

"The companies have an economic agenda that is served by limiting what can be called scientific," he said.

"They must maximise their profits in the short term, thus anything that produces a delay - and legislative concerns over not-easily-identifiable dangers do this - must be discredited and the way they are now doing this is to label us as unscientific."

He said that the companies have a more constricted definition of science as it applies to their products than he would adhere too.

"They think that to be scientific is to say that only when something is absolutely proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be bad should the product be pulled from the market," he said. "You could say that the really extreme Green opposite of that would be that only when something is absolutely proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be good should a product be allowed onto the market."

"The rest of us exist in the uncertain space in between. There is still science in that space and it is also the space in which we fight."

Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously suggested that the International Fragrance Association supported the ReachForLife/ScienceMatters campaign.

COMMENTS

EUobserver encourages comments that contribute to an intelligent debate. It reserves the right to delete comments which it deems abusive or which incite hatred. For questions about any aspect of community participation, please write to mm@euobserver.com.

View comments